Ontario nurses want pay parity with police, firefighters amid pandemic staffing crunch

Nurses in Ontario say the latest wave of COVID-19 infections has revealed long-standing problems in health care that need to be addressed immediately.

Omicron revealing long-existing problems in their profession, nurses say

Health-care workers tend to patients in the intensive care unit at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital in north-east Toronto on Apr. 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Nurses in Ontario say the latest wave of COVID-19 infections has revealed long-standing problems in the profession that need to be addressed, including better pay.

"They are highly educated individuals and they want to be respected," said Cathryn Hoy, the president of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA). 

For her, there are two parts to the compensation issue.

As the Omicron variant leaves hospitals struggling with a surge in COVID-19 patients and health-care workers, including nurses, are getting sick and suffering burnout, Hoy said one of the ways to to bring in more nurses and to retain them is to have pay parity with other essential workers like firefighters and police.

As municipal workers, those latter sectors are also exempt from Bill 124 passed in 2019 by the Ford government to cap salary increases at one per cent a year for public sector workers, including nurses and teachers. 

"Nursing is also a female-dominated profession, and [Bill 124] speaks to a lack of respect for that profession," said Hoy. 

The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, Doris Grinspun, points to the U.S., where most nurses are making up to six figures. 

"We have a problem of how the province is valuing ... nurses," she said. 

A nurse wearing full personal protective gear cares for COVID-19 patients in a hospital unit.
Nurses caring for COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit. Union heads say nurses are underpaid and undervalued and that's why many are leaving the profession after coping with exhaustion and burnout during the pandemic. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The current pay range for a registered nurse working at an Ontario hospital is between $34.24 an hour in their first year of service to $49.02 an hour after 25 years of service.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ontario's Treasury Board didn't address whether the province would consider lifting the wage cap, but said public sector workers are still eligible for pay increases.

"Under this legislation, Ontario's public sector employees will still be able to receive salary increases for seniority, performance, or increased qualifications as they do currently," Richard Mullin said.

'It's getting really overwhelming'

Eram Chhogala, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room at two Toronto hospitals, said she knows many who are choosing to leave the profession. 

"It's getting really overwhelming," she said, recalling a recent shift where four or five people came in suffering from COVID-19 and had to be put on life support. 

Nurses prepare before attending to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Chhogala said nurses in hospitals typically work a 12-hour shift, but have recently been working as much as 16 hours because of colleagues are getting infected. 

"I feel a lot of nurses have felt overworked and undervalued, and it seems the pay and treatment hasn't matched the appreciation of what nurses do."

Ministry of Health spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said: "Since the start of the pandemic, the province has added over 6,700 health care workers and staff to the system. We are working to add 6,000 more health care workers before the end of March 2022."

International nurses

To ease the staffing crunch, the province announced this week it is fast-tracking internationally-trained nurses to hospitals and allowing them to bypass lengthy licensing programs. 

But Hoy is calling for a formal program. "They're educated, and ready and willing to work," she said. 

Raisa Deber, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, said there is no reason not to put such a program in place. 

"In Canada, it's extremely difficult [for] foreign-trained nurses to get a licence," she said. "You, in effect, have to go through nursing school again."

22,000 nurses needed, NDP, ONA say

On Thursday, the Ontario NDP and ONA released a joint statement saying they believe the province needs 22,000 more nurses.

Hoy said "nothing was done about it" for years.

"The price we're paying is our members and our patients."

Meanwhile, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions has called on governments to adopt "circuit-breaker measures" to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The federation also announced its opposition to some hospitals having health-care workers caring for patients while positive for COVID-19

"We're in this position because governments have ignored the nursing shortage for far too long." said president Linda Silas.